It was a different time and boy, were we poor.
Dad had moved his family from Eastern Oregon to Battle Ground, Washington to work in Henry Kaiser’s shipyards during World War II. He joined 38,000 other workers turning out Liberty Ships and Baby Flattops in Vancouver at an incredible rate.
When the war ended, so did the steady work. Over the next 15 years, Dad would work when the union hall called which wasn’t nearly often enough for his family of five kids still at home. Then a disastrous string of injuries kept him from working for more than a few weeks in a five year period.
While cutting firewood, a falling tree broke his hip and very nearly drowned him. When those injuries healed and he had gone back to work, he fell out of our cherry tree while trying to use a cobbled-up ladder. When I got to him he was sitting in the driveway with his ankle so broken he could see the bottom of his foot. After a long recovery, Dad returned to the shipyards but broke his other ankle when a pile of steel shifted and fell on him while he was helping a co-worker get out of the way.
The amazing thing for us kids was that we had no idea of the struggle Mom and Dad were in just to put food on the table. We got to be kids who were loved and encouraged.
I often heard that my mother long to visit home. It was only 250 miles to La Grande but it might as well have been on a different continent. Our family car had come to the end of the line after hitting a deer. A 1953 Chevy was donated to us by a relative, but driving it to the store was an adventure, let alone a 500 mile roundtrip.
The old girl had trouble staying in gear. She was a three-speed stick shift. The XXXX on the column shift lever would pop right out of third gear while driving down the road. Oh yeah, did I mention that the driver side window was half gone? The window was broken right down the center, top to bottom, and the back half was completely missing. If you were in the front seat on a cold day with the heater on full blast, it wasn’t too bad. But the back seat on a cold day was “no man’s land.”
I had begun working in a plywood mill and bought a Fairlane 500 to get to work and do the other things teens do. My big idea was to offer to drive the family to Grandma’s house in La Grande for Thanksgiving. The idea pleased my mom. She hadn’t caught a break in who knows how long, and when I approached her with the idea, she got all emotional like moms do.
So we made the plan. It would be a tight fit getting two adults, me (a semi-adult) and four kids of various sizes in the car. But we knew we could do it. We made our way to church that way all the time, minus Dad. To accommodate a work schedule we decided to leave after midnight and get to La Grande for breakfast.
We were off and as cheerful a group as you would ever find. This was a mega adventure in our world and especially for Mom. While crossing the Interstate Bridge into Portland, Oregon, I noticed a problem. My brakes were grabbing a bit. My usually mechanic approach is to ignore trouble for as long as possible, but that wasn’t going to work in this case. Things deteriorated rather quickly.
I turned us around and tried to make it the 20 miles to home. The mood inside the car was pitiful. Mom was in tears, but in the darkness, she maintained herself, as always she didn’t let on to her own suffering.
A rear wheel bearing was failing. By the time I got home the wheel was glowing red. I pulled into the garage, everyone got out of the car and went into the house to bed without a word.
At 5AM my father woke me, asking me to help him get the car ready. In my sleep fog I couldn’t understand, “What car? Ready for what?”
“We’re going to drive the Chevy to La Grande.”
I got my doubtful self up mainly because this was something I had to see to believe.
Dad, unable to bear his sweetheart’s sadness and disappointment, transferred all our “packings” from the Fairlane to the Chevy and went to wake everyone up.
His greeting went something like this; “Come on get up, were going to La Grande, and by the way, bring your quilt.”
We had enough quilts for a quilt show in that back seat. In the front seat the heater never came off “high” the entire trip. The real challenge came when we entered into the Blue Mountains just outside of Pendleton. The snows had already come to the mountains and although the roads were free of snow and ice, our father explained it was colder than hell. A fact none us could verify or dispute.
We met the mountain’s challenge in our winter coats and stocking caps, buried in our quilts. We were honestly oblivious to the cold. We played our usual alphabet word games, looked at the incredible waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, and sang “Jumbo the Elephant” all the way to Grandma’s.
I am happy to report that Dad spent part of our Thanksgiving holiday traveling to the junkyard and finding a replacement window. He recruited me to be his assistant so I got to learn about installing a window while lying in the snow. The fix raised the inside temperature significantly for the ride home. Fortunately all our quilts fit easily into the trunk.
In my childhood memories I can’t find a happier moment than that ride over frigid Cabbage Hill. Perhaps we were riding on Mom’s happiness about getting to fulfill a longtime wish, perhaps it was just knowing that even though we’d been through a lot, there was still a lot of things to be grateful for. Or perhaps it was the familial love that binds us, manifesting in a road trip that logic would say should never have happened.